PBP’s Story

When Josh Lerner first heard about participatory budgeting (PB), he was in a classroom in Toronto. Back in 2003, Josh was a grad student looking to change the world, learning about new models of participatory democracy from Professor Daniel Schugurensky.

At first, he had doubts about the wonky term – “participatory budgeting”?

Then he met some local leaders who were using PB to build power from the bottom up.

Josh attended a conference session on PB expecting to hear from experts at a podium but instead he encountered a 20 minute skit showing – not telling – what PB looked like. The skit was produced by public housing residents who had been using PB since 2001 to directly decide how to make their buildings and communities better.

In 2005, Josh met Mike Menser and Gianpaolo Baiocchi at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where PB was started in 1989. Over the next several years, these committed nerds worked to organize conference sessions, publish articles, and launch a listserv and a public-facing website called participatorybudgeting.org.

Their public education campaign eventually led them to Joe Moore in Chicago’s 49th ward.

Joe was an elected official who was worried. As an incumbent, he had recently won a tight runoff election with only 51.9% of the vote. He realized that he’d lost some of his connection to his community, and it had almost cost him his job. Joe met Mike and learned about PB at the 2007 US Social Forum in Atlanta, and PB seemed like a way to do more than listen. It was a way to try something new by giving some of his power back to the people.

In 2009 Josh and Gianpaolo officially launched PBP to formalize their work supporting the first PB process in the US, in Chicago’s 49th ward, and leading a participatory evaluation of PB in Toronto.

In 2011, Josh began to work on PBP full time. PBP launched an ambitious new PB process in four NYC districts, and Josh, Mike, and new Project Coordinator Maria Hadden incorporated PBP as a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

Since then, PBP has added staff, expanded its programs, and launched dozens of PB processes – all to build a new bridge between government and the people, by empowering communities to change the way democracy works.